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The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost
October 21, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 10: 35-45
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to Jesus and said to him, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you." And he said to them, "What is it you want me to do for you?" And they said to him, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory." But Jesus said to them, "You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" They replied, "We are able." Then Jesus said to them, "The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared."
When the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John. So Jesus called them and said to them, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
Mark 10: 35-45
Can you guess who said this? “I am the Greatest! I want everyone to bear witness, I am the greatest! I'm the greatest thing that ever lived. I don't have a mark on my face, and I upset Sonny Liston, and I just turned twenty-two years old. I must be the greatest. I showed the world. I talk to God everyday. I know the real God. I shook up the world; I'm the king of the world. You must listen to me. I am the greatest! I can't be beat!" For a good many of us here, I don’t even have to provide a helpful hint for you; you already know who said that. You may even have been watching live on television when he said it. It was, of course, Muhammad Ali, truly the greatest boxer of his era. He was great and he wanted to make sure that everyone knew it, and that everyone gave him his due for it. Most of us were shocked by his brazen bravado. I mean, we were used to great athletes who were humble; or at least pretended to be humble in public.
Then again, we have always had those folks, accomplished in their field, who have heavily indulged in such self-promotion. Take Frank Lloyd Wright, the great architect, for instance. He once said, “Early in life I had to choose between honest arrogance and hypocritical humility. I chose arrogance and have seen no reason to change.“ Well, bless his heart! I’m learning.
In our Gospel lesson from the 10th chapter of Mark, this morning, we meet two self-promoting characters, whose desire to be recognized as great has spawned countless commentaries and sermons for two thousand years. Not the way they had hoped, however.
Sons of Thunder. That's the nickname given by Jesus to James and John, the sons of Zebedee (Mark 3:17). They are two of the first disciples called by Jesus; a couple of guys in his inner-most circle. Sons of Thunder: An awesome name for a motorcycle gang; or a rock band. But these two brothers think that it would be even better to be known as "the Greatest." So they walk up to Jesus and say, "Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you."
Are they being presumptuous? Absolutely! Narcissistic? Possibly. Out of line? You bet! You might want to shake your head at their arrogance, but the request they make is really not surprising. When you believe that you are the greatest, you're naturally going to make such demands. Just think of so many of our political candidates as we are entering the final weeks of long and punishing campaigns. They would not aspire to the highest offices in the land if they did not believe that they were the best. And they've spent years approaching rich donors and saying, in effect, "I want you to do for me whatever I ask of you."
So James and John say to Jesus, "Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory" (v. 37). They want the prime cabinet posts in the messianic administration of Jesus, sitting in the seats closest to the very regent of God. Nothing would make them happier than having people look up at Jesus and his Dream Team, themselves in the center, marveling at how great they are.
But there are a couple of problems with aspiring to be seen as great, as opposed to aspiring to greatness. There is a difference. Jesus tells us what real greatness is in our passage this morning.
First though, what are these problems with aspiring to be seen as great?
Well, the first problem is this: it creates a life of illusion. The illusion is that we are more important, wise, and just plain wonderful than we really are. This illusion can carry over into job titles. Not meaning to pick on politicians so much this morning, but I found these words from a relatively new one rather instructive. He writes, “I was totally unprepared for the Washington environment. I came from an all-male-college environment, where a person's standing in the community was judged on the basis of such factors as: Was he a good guy? Would he let you borrow his car? Would he still be your friend if your date threw up in his car?
But when I got to Washington, I discovered that even among young people, being a good guy was not the key thing: The key thing was your position on the great Washington totem pole of status. Way up at the top of this pole is the president; way down at the bottom, below mildew, is the public. In between is an extremely complex hierarchy of government officials, journalists, lobbyists, lawyers and other power players, holding thousands of minutely graduated status rankings differentiated by extremely subtle nuances that only Washingtonians are capable of grasping.
He then offers some examples. Which one of these following positions is the more important? "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary" or, "Associate Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Principal Deputy to Deputy Assistant Secretary," or "Deputy to the Deputy Secretary," or "Principal Assistant Deputy Undersecretary," or "Chief of Staff to the Assistant Assistant Secretary." All of these are real federal job titles, by the way. A true Washingtonian would know, we’re told. I asked my sister about this, as she was in this hierarchy for nearly 40 years. “Oh, that’s easy,” she said, “It depends on their department.”
Aspiring to be seen as great is often linked to a life of illusion, one which causes people to believe that they are more invincible, powerful and righteous than they really are. That’s one problem. Here’s the other: It can lead us into a state of confusion; namely, confusion about the true meaning of greatness. This second problem is one that Jesus addresses directly. "You do not know what you are asking," says Jesus to the aspiring great ones, James and John. "Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?" (v. 38). Jesus senses that they are confused about what they are getting into, and he makes clear that the path to glory goes straight through the wilderness of suffering.
Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, asks Jesus; the cup of my blood, shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sin? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with; the baptism of dying and rising, one in which suffering and death always precede joy and new life? John and James reply, "We are able". The two come across as supremely confident, but we have to suspect that they don't know what they're talking about. They're still confused about the path that lies ahead. Their sense of self-importance reminds me of an incident that happened in an airport waiting area last year. Bad weather had caused delays and cancellations throughout the country. Thousands of anxious travelers were on standby. One of these passengers, a senior business executive, was desperate to get on a plane so he wouldn't be late for a meeting. He kept crowding the counter, trying to get the airline staff to do something to move his name higher up the standby list.
The agent had just put down the microphone, having said to the crowd for the third or fourth time: "Those of you who are on standby, please sit down and we will call your name when we have a seat for you." But this was a man who would not take "maybe" for an answer. He kept pestering the agent, explaining how important it was that he get on the next flight. Finally, in exasperation, he asked her, "Do you know who I am?"
The agent had had enough. Picking up the microphone, she announced: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a man here who does not know who he is. Would someone please claim him, offer him a seat in the waiting area, and tell him I'll talk to him when it's his turn?"
Jesus doesn't shoot James and John down, though. Instead, he nods in agreement. "The cup that I drink you will drink," he promises; "and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized" (v. 39). He knows that they are walking the way of the cross. It will lead to suffering for all and to death for some. The book of Acts tells us that James was later put to death by the sword, on the order of King Herod Agrippa (Acts 12:2). The first of the apostles to be martyred for the faith, he came to be known as James the Greater, to differentiate him from the other James, the son of Alphaeus, who is known as James the Lesser.
As for John, he too suffered under the persecution of Herod Agrippa, but survived. Tradition tells us that he lived to very old age and died of natural causes in Ephesus. He didn’t have to give up his life for the faith, but he did give his life to the faith. In the beginning, both James and John had aspired to be seen as great. They had suffered from illusion and confusion. But by the end, both the illusion and confusion that go with that aspiration to be seen as great had long since been stripped away.
So, what’s the difference between aspiring to be seen as great, and aspiring to greatness itself? Jesus tells us. The other disciples hear what John and James are asking, and they blow up at the Sons of Thunder. Jesus uses this squabble for what those of us who have been educators call a teaching moment. He clears up the confusion about the true meaning of greatness. He begins by pointing to the way that the leaders of the Gentiles act as tyrants, lording it over their people (v. 42). "But it is not so among you;" he says; "but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all" (vv. 43-44). Clearly, the key to real greatness is to be a servant of others.
Since Jesus refuses to preach what he will not himself practice, he reveals that he is the model for this approach: "For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve." It is at this point, other Gospel writers tell us, that Jesus puts on a towel and washes the disciple’s feet. Greatness is measured by service.
See if you can guess who said this. "Wouldn't it be a beautiful world if just 10 percent of the people who believe in the power of love would compete with one another to see who could do the most good for the most people?" Any guesses? It‘s Muhammad Ali; same guy as that first quote. Well, maybe not the same guy, exactly. The two statements could hardly be more different. The first is Ali's boyish bluster from 1964, just after he defeated Sonny Liston for the first time. The second is something he wrote in his autobiography, The Soul of a Butterfly, in 2004. Forty years separate the two quotations. Forty years of living. A lot can change in half a lifetime.
Another quotation by Ali explains it: "The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has just wasted the last 30 years of his life." Afflicted by Parkinson's disease since 1984, a condition likely brought on by the pummeling his body received in the ring, Ali is busy today as a global good-will ambassador, peace activist and advocate for the developing world. By one estimate, he has provided over 232 million meals to feed the hungry. He remains one of the most easily-recognized celebrities on the planet. Ali's idea of greatness appears to have changed over time.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., reflecting on this very Gospel lesson, said it best, "Everybody can be great," he said "because anybody can serve… You only need a heart full of grace, and a soul generated by love." Everybody can be great because anybody can serve. True for James. True for John. True for you and me. Don’t aspire to be seen as great. Aspire to greatness. Serve!